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Fall 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 2 · pp. 31–38 

Discipling Believers to Embrace Diversity in Worship

Tony Funk

Worshippers need to be discipled to accept a diversity of musical genres and texts in church services. The body of believers is a diverse group that requires an equal diversity of musical expression. This is my conclusion after studying musical practices in the Sunday worship services of Mennonite Brethren churches in British Columbia.

Living in community requires both grace and judgment in order to come to terms with diversity.

What Mennonite Brethren conceptualize as worship is rapidly changing. This change is occurring has because the Mennonite Brethren are a people in transition. The church no longer lives under the hardships experienced in nineteenth-century Russia. War, famine, threat of genocide, and religious persecution are no longer the present threat. Today’s Mennonite Brethren in North America have to deal instead with the overwhelming challenges of materialism, acculturation, and the re-evaluation of a rich ethnic heritage. 1

The Mennonite Brethren church began in Russia in the 1860’s and as such is still in its infancy in comparison with the established traditions of other denominations. Yet in this brief one hundred thirty years the denomination has undergone dramatic changes. It has moved from one continent to another, and it has changed from an agrarian lifestyle to an urban and suburban identity. {32}


Worship patterns have also changed. The 1950’s and 1960’s witnessed the end of the “meeting house” structure which reflected Mennonite values of simplicity. 2 Simple unadorned church buildings have been replaced by elaborate multi-million dollar complexes. Well into the 20th century, the official language of the church was German, church services were fairly homogeneous, and German hymnody provided the main repertoire of worship music. Now the language is English, services take diverse forms, and the hymns come from Britain, America, and sometimes Asia. The concept of “Vorsaenger,” a voluntary song leader, has been replaced by the remunerated worship leader. In the early days, many churches sang a cappella and had heated debates when the time came to consider pianos and organs as instruments of congregational accompaniment. Now many churches use worship teams with guitars and various electronic instruments to provide congregational accompaniment. Traditional four-part harmony, once the exclusive genre of worship, has had to make room for new styles of singing. 3

These changes have not been welcomed by everyone. One need only be reminded of the hymn/chorus debate that raged in the periodical the Mennonite Brethren Herald over a two-year period (1986-88) with both sides arguing that certain songs should or should not be sung during worship. This argument centered around quality, durability and singability of music and text. Accounts of churches engaged in conflict over singing styles in worship are common. Polarization between camps results in misunderstanding, deep pain and wounds.

What is at the root of these tensions? Mennonite Brethren worshippers, for whatever reason, may have too narrow a view of what is “good, acceptable and true” when it comes to singing in worship. Those who totally embrace contemporary genres may be reacting against their narrow, traditional Mennonite upbringing. And those who cling to traditional forms of singing in worship may represent a generation trying to hold onto remnants of a familiar faith and culture from days gone by. But if we look beyond traditionalism on the one hand, and exclusive contemporary expressions on the other, we can discover a variety of ways of ministering to believers. The best solution is to avoid an “either/or” position.

A wholistic concept of discipling believers may provide the groundwork to diffuse these tensions. At conversion the believer begins a journey of seeking to understand the mysteries of faith. Discipleship in the life of the believer means moving forward from “spiritual birth” to Christ-like maturity. Discipleship is a road walked where one submits daily to the Lordship of Christ by taking up the cross of Christ in order to follow him. {33} In a culture that emphasizes self-pleasure, self-fulfillment, and self-interest rather than concern for others, discipleship as self-denial becomes increasingly countercultural. As Mennonites, we are no strangers to discipleship, for it has been a hallmark of Anabaptism since its inception.

On this life-long journey to spiritual maturity, people can be discipled in many different ways, one of which occurs through teaching. Biblical and theological concepts are systematically taught to believers through Sunday School and Bible study. Learning also takes place in the worship service. Here, by observation and participation, believers are discipled. For example, singing in worship can contribute to a believer’s discipling, since truths about God can be expounded through a song’s text.

Discipling people in matters of faith requires a diversity of methods. We should disciple believers diversely in the ministry of music, because the cumulative ministry of music and worship (specifically singing) is a significant part of this discipleship experience.


Diversity of musical and textual styles used in the Sunday morning worship singing is a vital part of the worship experience. The case for diversity as being God-honoring can be found in a number of New Testament passages. Unity in uniformity is not the Biblical ideal. 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 show that unity rooted in diversity is healthy and normative.

Paul emphasizes that there are many gifts, but only one Spirit. Even though there are a variety of ministries, they are from the same Lord. Even though there are a variety of effects, the same God works all things in all people (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

Paul develops this view further in Ephesians 4. God’s new society, he says, will be characterized by new standards, one of which is unity in diversity.

Throughout both passages Paul discusses the positive aspects of diversity and maintains that the unity of the body is strengthened when a variety of gifts is being used. Diversity in the church is exciting, and we as members are enriched because of the different manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Without diversity, the church ceases to function. Markus Barth is emphatic:

The church cannot be one except when it attests to its God-given oneness by proving unity in diversity, and when it ventures to respect diversity in unity. Uniformity would be the alternative—a form of death which is recommended neither by 1 Corinthians 12, nor by Ephesians 4. . . {24} 4

Although Paul is not discussing the benefits of diversity in terms of singing in worship, an application to worship can be made based on the principles he sets forth. The body of Christ can be built up in many ways, using a variety of musical genres. If we were only to sing hymns translated from the Ausbund, which is the 400-year-old hymnal of the Amish church, or if on the other hand we selected only songs written by mainline charismatic Christians, our understanding of God would become one-sided. Though both genres are in themselves appropriate for worship, either one used exclusively would lose its effectiveness.

The key is diversity. Just as the body of Christ would become impotent if all were gifted identically, so singing in worship becomes inadequate if it is assumed God is revealed only through one genre, be it contemporary music, gospel, folk hymns or hymnody.

God is a timeless and creative God, constantly revealing himself in new ways. Songs written today testify to his creative movement. Yet God also reveals himself in the music of the past because those writers conceptualized God from their unique perspective. The God revealed to the Apostles, Luther, Menno Simons and to us today is the same God. The challenge is to find those expressions which best connect with our contemporary understanding and experience.

The very fact that God has created humanity with such incredible diversity gives credence to the belief that a diversity of methods will be required to nurture the body of Christ. The church needs to discover a diversity of songs and texts that can faithfully bear the message of the gospel. This approach has two immediate benefits. First, it guards against any particular theological biases which a particular movement might have, and second, it ensures a variety of fresh and creative music and lyrics, suited to worshippers who come from all walks of life, from different socioeconomic classes, educational experiences, levels of spiritual maturity, personality types and artistic inclinations.


The church plays a major role in shaping the “spiritual personality” of its members, not the least through its music.

Its singing reveals much about a congregation, what it holds important, how it views God, society, and the world at large. The songs we choose to sing reflect our understanding of God, since particular styles of music—folk, gospel, contemporary, traditional—present theological truths differently, in unique ways.

The songs we sing not only reflect but will ultimately affect our {35} theology. Our theological understanding should shape our musical expression and not the other way around. 5 Yet in practice the reverse may be true.

No one can doubt the ability of music to reinforce meaning, be it biblical, commercial, or secular. It has been said that the person who controls what a congregation sings, shapes the theological personality of that community. The early Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle articulated this in their doctrine of ethos. They believed that music could alter behavior for good or evil. Even today music is used as a means of stimulating military fervor, or, as in the case of some rock music, to intensify anti-establishment messages. Plato was so bold as to say, “Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws.” 6

The singing in worship contributes to the formation of a believer’s “spiritual personality.” If, for instance, we decide to sing only upbeat, inspirational songs, we may transmit the notion that costly discipleship is not really necessary. And if we sing only songs that are turgid, slow, melancholy, and archaic in language, we may project the notion that discipleship is dreary, joyless, and antiquated.

With this in mind we should be careful and thoughtful in selecting what will be sung in a worship service. Diversity of choice will help provide balance in thought and mood.


People living in community learn from one another. Living in community means grappling with issues, sharing times of fellowship, celebrating achievements, sorrowing over difficulties, and facing disagreements. Living in community requires “give and take” and coming to terms with unity in diversity. Deliberately embracing diversity in music is one way to teach and embody community life.

Acceptance of diversity does not come naturally to the church community (1 Cor. 12). Paul had to demonstrate to the Corinthians its benefits and theological integrity. Part of his message is that people need to be trained to accept diversity.

Discipling people to embrace diversity in music and textual expression teaches them about grace and judgment. They learn the grace to accept diversity of opinion regarding musical styles. They also learn to live in judgment, which means that the church community learns to judge whether or not it is giving God its best sacrifice of praise.

This knowledge may bring to light specific “sins” that have hindered community growth. A church may discover, as Don Hustad shows, that some of the following attitudes have kept the community from embracing {36} diversity:

  • Pride (believing in and encouraging “musical imperialism", which is a belief that only one style of singing in worship is superior or relevant);
  • Hedonism (desiring to be entertained in worship, to seek to be “pleasured” in singing instead of seeking the spiritual benefits);
  • Spectatorism (watching the service happen as opposed to actively participating in it);
  • Sentimentalism (preferring songs that can be described as trite, clichéd, maudlin and pretentious, where personal taste becomes the subjective standard). 7

To move people beyond their personal taste and preferences, conscious discipling will need to take place. The church will need to embark on a “long obedience in the same direction.” 8 In worship the individual ego must be submerged, while attention and focus are directed more and more towards God. As concern over genre, style, enjoyment, and attention to personal satisfaction decline, more focus can be placed upon the worshipper’s relationship to Christ, the Holy Spirit’s working in their lives, and their relationship with other believers.


Singing should help people connect their human experiences with their spiritual experiences. The entire gamut of life should be expressed in song in order for the individual worshipper to enter into the entire community’s joys, struggles, triumphs and disappointments. A balanced repertoire that deals with the real issues of the Christian life is needed. “Happiness to know the Savior” is not the total picture of the Christian life. There is joy in faith, but the life of holiness to which God calls us is often filled with trouble, failure, pain, anguish, and disappointment. To sing songs that imply that faith is easy, sugary, sweet or painless does a disservice to the message of the Cross. Christians often carry deep wounds that require long-term healing. We are a community of believers, not an island of individuals; and by entering into each others’ joys and struggles, we come to better understand our God and each other.

An environment that promotes discipled diversity would be “prophetic.” This means that the singing offered during a worship service would teach a wholistic understanding of God and faith, while being true to the mystery of God. While our God is personal and incarnate, he is also complete mystery. Anything less would diminish his deity. Infinity, {37} eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence—to name a few of his attributes—can not be fully explained or understood by those of us who are his finite creation. Christians exercise faith in God. Yet, the songs often chosen deny that principle by providing instant answers in neatly wrapped packages. For example, the chorus, “God is so good, he’s so good to me,” takes but an initial step. God is good, but what does goodness mean? Does goodness mean guidance through fiery trials? Does goodness mean happiness? Is God as concerned with our happiness as he is about our holiness?

“Prophetic” means that we give up our infatuation with a favorite style of music in order to gain a greater understanding of God’s revelation about himself. Songs from different cultures and different eras communicate new aspects of God’s revelation. The prophetic approach allows for new creative expressions of God’s unfailing and constant revelations of himself. In other words, the prophetic in music must also embrace a diversity of styles of music. Donald Hustad, noted authority on music in the evangelical church, maintains that evangelicals must become more open to broader experience in musical expression in order to enrich their worship experience. 9 Janet R. Walton, in her article “Multicultural Hymnody,” discusses the importance of multicultural hymnody in enriching the believer’s understanding of faith. She urges churches to experience the enrichment and understanding that is available in the hymnody of other cultures. This ecumenical approach stretches the Evangelical understanding of the Church’s commitment to “wholeness and justice,” since it requires worshippers to sing about more than status quo issues and concerns. 10

The prophetic approach also encourages believers to offer a worthy sacrifice of their best and most meaningful worship. Disciples should strive for excellence in singing and “stretch and yearn for the unexpected.” Harold M. Best explains that striving for excellence finds its basis in stewardship not status.

What is excellence anyway? We often confuse it with perfection and end up frustrated. Failing this, we equate it with snobbery or assume it to be the sole property of someone better trained that we are. Or, in this age of valuelessness, we might assume excellence to be totally irrelevant—a thing of the past. But to the biblical perspective, excellence is, simply put, a commandment. It is both absolute and relative; absolute, because it is the norm of stewardship and cannot be avoided or compromised; relative, because it is set in the context of striving, wrestling, hungering, thirsting, pressing on from point to point and achievement to achievement. Moreover, we are unequally gifted and cannot equally achieve. Consequently, some artists are better than others. But all artists can be better than they once were. This is excelling. We should be no more {38} impressed with congregation “x” preferring [one genre] than we are appalled by congregation “y” preferring [another genre], as long as both are stretching and yearning for the unexpected. Taste by itself is useless. In fact, it is often one of the forms of idolatry which overcome us. However, if God senses faith at work—faith which makes us creatively discontent and eager to live in the surprises of creation—He smiles, whatever the level of achievement at the time. And the important words are at the time, because God ever expects us, as He did Abraham, to be on the move. 11


  1. John H. Redekop, A People Apart (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1987).
  2. Robert S. Kreider, “Architecture,” The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 1990, 5: 34
  3. Helen Martens, “Singing,” The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 1990, 5: 827.
  4. Markus Barth, Ephesians 4-6. Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 466.
  5. Calvin M. Johansson, Discipling Music Ministry, Twenty-first Century Directions (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 14-17.
  6. Donald Hustad, Jubilate! Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1981), 8.
  7. Ibid., 36-37. See also “Accounting for Taste,” ch. 5 in Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989.
  8. Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1980), 12-13.
  9. Hustad, 39.
  10. Janet R. Walton, “Multicultural Hymnody,” Liturgy 3 (spring 1983), 90; Hustad, 39-40.
  11. Hustad, 39-40.
Tony Funk is a music and worship instructor at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, British Columbia

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